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The Psychology of Workplace Safety

by Brenda Scottsdale

Despite vigilant companies routinely installing hardware and implementing safety management systems, workplace accidents continue to occur. These accidents are frequently caused by people's complex, ingrained beliefs and feelings that lead to unsafe behaviors. Changing these beliefs is often the job when an occupational psychologist is hired to delve more deeply into the psychology of workplace safety.

Unsafe Behaviors

While traditional safety management programs might focus on counting accidents, those focusing on the psychology of workplace safety would instead count the number of unsafe behaviors occurring in the workplace. An unsafe behavior might not, by itself, cause an accident. However, focusing on each individual unsafe behavior is a more sensitive approach because it allows a psychologist to intervene proactively -- before an accident occurs. Unsafe behaviors can be measured on a daily basis, and problematic attitudes can be targeted to change before a disaster occurs.

Long-Term View

People may behave in unsafe ways in the workplace because they have developed bad habits that so far never resulted in an accident. However, an occupational psychologist may help employees to take a long-term view of these behaviors by providing statistics that change a worker's mind. They may cite statistical models such as Heinrich's triangle, for example, which suggests that one out of every 330 unsafe acts will result in a major injury and 29 will result in a minor injury. If people know the odds, they may be less likely to gamble.

A Perfect Storm

While one isolated, unsafe behavior may not result in an accident, several behaviors together may create a disaster. A psychologist might use creative examples to open eyes in the workplace. For instance, the multiple factors that created the disastrous Titanic tragedy, including a lack of caution, failure to provide adequate lifeboats, a breakdown in emergency procedures and failure of the crew and passengers to believe the ship could actually sink, show how dangerous individual errors can be. People are sometimes unmoved by cold, hard data. Using real-life examples, however, is a psychological tactic that brings stagnant data alive.

Identifying Effective Motivators

Generally, unsafe behaviors in a workplace are supported by a number factors, called reinforcers. A psychological approach to workplace safety involves identifying, through literature review, study and observation, which of these reinforcing factors are the most influential. Smokers, for example, may not stop smoking because they are told this habit is bad for your health, but, they might stop if they are told smoking causes skin wrinkles. By identifying what motivates people, prevention efforts can focus on only one or two reinforcers, giving companies more "bang for their buck."

About the Author

Brenda Scottsdale is a licensed psychologist, a six sigma master black belt and a certified aerobics instructor. She has been writing professionally for more than 15 years in scientific journals, including the "Journal of Criminal Justice and Behavior" and various websites.

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